The destination for history

The role of women in the First World War


The majority of writing about women during the First World War tends to focus on their roles as nurses or workers on the Home Front, but few look at the militarisation of women that took place during those four and a half years.

In 1914 war was very much a man’s world and it was unthinkable for women to fight alongside men, yet by end of the war over 200,000 women were in uniform officially serving for their countries. Even then, most of the women were kept away from the Front and behind the line of fire and this is reflected in the way in which historians generally deal with the wartime experiences of men and women separately.

There were a small, but significant number of women who managed to blur the lines of gender division and actively sought a more prominent role. In the face of opposition from their governments and the armed services, these women formed voluntary units in the early months of the conflict. They adopted military-style uniforms and established themselves overseas in mainland Europe. They went on to provide invaluable support services to the military where it was most required, from driving ambulances to setting up soup kitchens and first-aid posts in the trenches. The women tended to be middle-class and were independently wealthy, able to fund their organisations and call on generous benefactors.

In Britain the Voluntary Aid Detachment scheme was intended to provide medical support for the country’s home defence, but their commander Katharine Furse set up a series of medical contingents in France. Despite rejections from the War Office, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry operated independently in both Belgium and France. Meanwhile Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, known as the Women of Pervyse, set up a first-aid post in the Yser region of Belgium, regularly venturing into the trenches and even no-man’s land. Qualified women doctors formed their own hospitals treating soldiers and civilians along both the Western and Eastern Fronts when they were denied commissions in the military medical services.

Women in the forces

The contribution of these women has long been obscured by the sheer number of men who fought in the conflict. In Britain alone around five million men joined the army and nearly one million of these men were killed. In this new, modern and highly-mechanised war with alarmingly high death tolls, there was a desperate shortage of manpower. What these women, along with those on the Home Front demonstrated was that when it mattered, women were quite capable of taking on war work and more responsibility. The British Army tried various schemes to swell the ranks and encourage more men to enlist, but in 1916 the government was forced to introduce conscription. Even then the shortage of men in combat roles was acute and discussions began about replacing men in auxiliary roles with women, releasing them for frontline duties. This time though the government would be in charge of the female forces, they didn’t want any more independent voluntary groups defying their authority. Britain decided to employ working-class women, who were able to step straight into jobs ranging from waitresses and cooks, to despatch riders and code-breakers with minimal training. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and Women’s Royal Naval Service were established in 1917 followed by the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918.

Although the women were kept away from the trenches, the accelerated development of long range artillery and air power, meant that in the latter years of the war, even the base camps and hospital cities were no longer safe as the war zone rapidly expanded. Other countries established similar auxiliary services for women, such as the female Yeoman in the US Navy and the ‘Hello Girls’ who worked as telephone operators for the U.S. Army in France. Russia was the only country to form a women’s combat battalion. In 1917 when Russia was in the grip of political revolution and its army faced mass desertion, the Provisional Government formed an all-female unit called the Women’s Battalion of Death. It was an attempt to shame the disillusioned men into re-joining the fight, but the experiment was deemed a failure when the Bolsheviks rose to power that autumn. As Russia turned its back on its imperial past, the women’s bravery as they went over the top and took the German trenches was largely forgotten.

In recent decades the role of women has received an increasing amount of attention. Assessing their contribution to the war, most historians have looked at how women were rewarded with suffrage after over half a century of political campaigning. But the significance of their contribution can also be seen in how readily women’s auxiliary forces were employed during the Second World War and the assertion of woman’s role in the military. 

By Elisabeth Shipton

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books